With the Vince Vaughn-starring Unfinished Business set to hit theaters this weekend, our film staff sat down for a roundtable discussion about the evolution of the “bro comedy” and where the genre may go in the future.
Justin Gerber (JG): I’m trying to remember when the “bro comedy” began. While I’m fairly certain it started with a movie featuring Vince Vaughn, I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly which movie it was. Was it 1996’s Swingers, where we follow a group of struggling actors (played by Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Ron Livingston, Alex Desert, Patrick Van Horn) trying to make it big in L.A.? No, no, that’s not right. It’s probably 2003’s Old School, about three dudes who form a fraternity in order to recapture their youth.
But wait! What about Animal House? We could drive ourselves crazy attempting to nail down wherever and whenever the whole shebang began, but one thing is for certain: the bro comedy is still going strong today. I don’t necessarily mean “strong” in terms of content; it’s those box office returns (Neighbors) and controversies (The Interview) that have kept the studios pumping out movie after movie in this subgenre of comedies. With Vaughn’s Unfinished Business just around the corner, I wanted to talk about the highs and lows of bro comedies.
What are some of your favorites/least favorites, what tropes arise, what men (and women) are in its hall of fame, and most importantly, what is Unfinished Business? I’ve seen trailers and artwork, but is this a real thing?
Randall Colburn (RC): Perhaps we should begin by addressing the question that keeps me awake most nights: what, exactly, constitutes a bro comedy?
Bros, for one. And not just in the pejorative sense, though there’s plenty of that, too. I mean, you know, dudes. Friendship is always emphasized, the inimitable bond that men can only find in each other. That friendship is always called into question, whether it’s by a female, rival bros, or time itself, which takes with its passage the simplicity of youth. The women are comically attractive and underdeveloped, reduced to either manipulating shrews or flawless sweethearts. Bad, “boys will be boys” behavior is celebrated, but leavened by the nefarious actions of antagonists. Our heroes are naughty, but goodhearted. They just want to have a good time.
Truly, the line that divides “bro comedies” is age. On one hand, you’ve got Van Wilder, which nudges our college-aged hero into the responsibilities of adulthood. On the other, you’ve got Old School, where our trio of shlubby, middle-aged heroes are diving headfirst back into the sense of abandon and freedom they haven’t felt since college. The latter tend to be better, as the best ones are brave enough to show that, while it can teach you some good lessons, retreating to the irresponsibility of youth just won’t fulfill you as it once did.
For that reason, Old School has always been one of my favorites of the sub-genre. Also, as Frank “The Tank” Ricard, Will Ferrell was at the height of his powers, delivering a fearless performance that hilariously married his manic physical comedy with banal bon mots that are surprisingly quotable (“a pretty nice little Saturday”). His character is just weird enough to offset the fratty nature of the rest of the film. And while we’re talking about weirdness, let me also touch on Saving Silverman, an abysmal 2001 bro comedy saved by truly bizarre flourishes, such as a cameo by Neil Diamond and a hilariously graphic scene of Jason Biggs getting butt implants. “I thought his ass looked tighter!” says Jack Black, and 14 years later I still cackle,
How about you guys? Have I painted bro comedies too broadly? What films resonate for you?
Leah Pickett (LP): I love a good bro comedy. Of course, not all of them are winners, but the same can be said for their gal-pal counterparts: Bridesmaids, great; The Heat, good; The Other Woman, terrible; Sex and the City 2, kill me now.
I agree with Randall in that a bro comedy is most often defined by its focus on male friendship or “bromance.” Although wacky hijinks and sexy ladies almost always factor into the plot, the theme of friendship remains at the heart of the story, as evidenced in films like Wedding Crashers, Old School, Dodgeball, The Hangover, I Love You, Man, Ted, and Superbad, which is my favorite of the genre (“You know how many foods are shaped like dicks? The best kinds.”)
But what differentiates a “bro comedy” from a “buddy comedy?” If we wanted to paint in broad strokes, we could go all the way back to Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, and The Three Stooges as examples of bro-ventures played for laughs. One of my favorite comedies of all time, which just happens to involve two men dressing in drag to evade the mob, is Some Like It Hot; would that qualify as a “bro comedy” by today’s standards?
No doubt inspired by Swingers but coming to a head in the Old School/Anchorman/40-Year-Old Virgin era, the “Frat Pack,” an anointed posse of recurring players that included Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carrell, was born. Later inductees would include Mark Wahlberg, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, and Zach Galifianakis. But is the early aughts really where it all began? After all, the “buddy cop” genre has flourished for decades, with renewed interest in recent years giving us Starsky & Hutch, The Other Guys, Let’s Be Cops, and 21 Jump Street. Would these later films qualify as bro comedies because of the players involved, whereas a pre-Frat Pack cop comedy like Lethal Weapon would not?
What do you guys think? Must a bro comedy involve “bros” in the pejorative frat-boy sense, or can it be about any kind of guy, geeks (Superbad), weirdoes (Dumb & Dumber), and cops included?
Dan Caffrey (DC): I’m going to put my bro-foot down and say that the bro comedy is much more specific than we’re talking about here. I think the reason something like Animal House usually doesn’t get lumped in with the genre, despite it taking place at a fraternity and involving plenty of hijinks, is that the main plot doesn’t have much to do with the relationships between the members of Delta Tau Chi. I mean, yes, they have relationships and all like each other, but the primary goal of the movie is to save the fraternity in a collective sense. It hinges less on male bonding than on school pride. It also has the slobs versus snobs thing going on, which is a staple of many ’70s and ’80s comedies.
So while I’d call it an aggressive male POV comedy, I wouldn’t call it a bro comedy. For me, the quintessential bro comedy has a message of bros feeling displaced in their roles as bros. It’s not just a matter of dudes being friends — it’s a matter of dudes realizing their friendships have become more complicated and that their lives have changed. It goes back to what Randall said about the message of something like Old School. That film, along with Road Trip, Superbad, I Love You, Man, and Wedding Crashers, finds the male characters in a period of great transition, whether it’s getting ready for college, getting married, shifting from aimlessness to responsibility, etc. In short, bro comedies find their bros at a crossroads. The characters may not realize this at the beginning, but they usually do by the end, and have to figure out how such drastic change is going to affect their friendships.
What say the rest of you? Are you with me on establishing this kind of hard-and-fast criteria for bro comedies, or am I way off the mark?
JG: Dan, I get where you’re coming from. You’re speaking my lingo. The most recent example of these criteria is found in The Interview, a film that finds a producer (Seth Rogen) at the end of his rope. He’s tired of the light, paint-by-numbers show he works on, and wants to dig deeper. His career-at-a-crossroads plight launches the story of getting an interview with Kim Jong Un. Of course, the host of his show (James Franco) could not care less at the end of the day, and therein lays another plot point at the heart of the bro comedy.
How many of these movies are promoted with posters featuring a normal-looking guy juxtaposed next to the wild-and-crazy guy to their side? Most bro comedies have the “X is trying to grow up, but Y won’t let him” plot thread that runs throughout their films, and it has admittedly worked for years and years. If we agree that these films started around Old School, how many more years are left in this brand? Is Unfinished Business the death knock? I for one have grown tired of the “white guys dance in slow motion to hip-hop” montage that runs rampant throughout the subgenre. Am I alone? And, again, are we sure Unfinished Business is a real movie?
Patrick Gill (PG): I think Leah and Randall noted rallying against age/maturity, hijinks, and the need to protect the frat, the Wolfpack, the bromance. I keep a shady glance towards the last one, in case it casually enforces negative aspects of letting boys be boys, though I like the sentiment you added about characters recognizing the meaningfulness of the friendship.
Filth is key. We need projectile bodily fluids, dick jokes, and poorly timed public sex scenes, at least. Please add more if you wish. This isn’t to say bro comedy is purely crass. Seth Rogen and Martin Starr let you laugh at pink eye jokes with your intellectual ego intact. Jason Segel is so damn earnest you would watch him in anything. Vulgarity is essential, and watching Zach Galifianakis finesse it keeps the genre dynamic.
The rebooting of action TV series (21 Jump Street, Starsky and Hutch) as goofy films also looks like a means to keep things fresh, which lends itself to the belief that bro comedies are contemporary beasts. Much like bros themselves, bro movies seem unable to not find stuff to goof on, returning to sports films (Talladega Nights), music biopics (Walk Hard), ’70s newsroom sexism (Anchorman), etc. Keeping it light and messing with concepts of your bros also seems to be a staple.
As for buddy cop movies being bro films, I’m skeptical. I think a personal rule for good bro comedies is asking if it’s too much of a stretch to see a dude calling up friends and essentially recreating the film. The line can get tenuous, but once it pulls focus from the “every man” at the center shtick, I think it loses the bro aspect.
There’s also the Tonight! trope. Superbad, Project X, 21 & Over, and Dazed and Confused (I call at least bro adjacent, for McConaughey’s presence alone) all rally through debauched evenings, intending to crystallize the meaning of time friends spend together in the face of adult responsibilities.
Aside from similar narrative arc and themes, I think you can spot a bro comedy by the lineup of characters. With a subgenre so focused on men, what kind of bros do we see? Leah, I think there is a push for the awkward bro recently, with Jonah Hill leading the charge (from Superbad to 21 Jump Street). What are some of the categories that form in bro casts? Nominally Attractive Schlub as the lead is almost a given, but who else supports?
In my favorites, Dodgeball and Super Troopers, writers Great Escape-together bands of dudes to fight on. What characters do you need to make a bro film?
LP: Justin, I don’t think that the bro comedy will ever die, but it’s already evolved leaps and bounds since Old School. To Patrick’s point, the archetypes will continue on: Nominally Attractive Schlub in the lead, with the Nerd, the Wild Fratty Bro, the Chubby Guy, the Idiot, the FOB, etc. in supporting roles. It’s a formula that’s proven its weight in both audience appeal and dollar signs, many times over. And dynamic duos (Seth Rogen and James Franco, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson) will continue to make films together until audiences get sick of them and their films stop making money, because that’s just the way Hollywood works.
As for whether Unfinished Business is, in fact, a real movie, I would venture to guess that its ambiguity is part of its marketing. Unfinished Business, unfinished movie, get it? An IMDB commenter’s take: “EuroTrip meets Hangover meets elements of Hot Tub Machine.” Yeah, that sounds about right.
With all the obvious recycling, is the genre going stale? Should we eliminate the tropes, as Justin mentioned, and start anew?
PG: Dear anything-considered-holy: Unfinished Business is becoming realer every day, as the release date marches forward the trailers seem to multiply. If I could find anything new about it that might be changing bro comedy it would be Tom Wilkinson’s inclusion as a late middle-aged man/elderly man. Bros get old; maybe he factors in from the usable trope of the youthful rejuvenation from being around your dude friends, but that he is a (assumed by the place he takes in marketing materials) more fleshed-out character seems to bring a new dynamic. Just like the offbeat deadpan of Zach Galifianakis brought life to The Hangover, archetype introduction seems to be doing an alright job.
This leads me to believe the simplest route to evolution is giving more to women’s characters. Women are there, often figuring into plot points and moving the story in small ways; why not give them more narrative heft? Is that too much of a betrayal of the bro core to the films?
For what Christine Taylor, Emma Stone, or Leslie Mann get in these films, they do a lot. What if they were threatening the bromance for discernible reasons, instead of just being seen as shrill and “just not getting it?” What if besides being beautiful and getting a few good lines to make them that much more idyllic, we had the love interest develop, speak for herself, or show us how badass she is instead of having bros describe their pining for her in detail. Charlene Yi’s Jodi in Knocked Up also showed women can bro down too. It’s not much of a part, but what other kinds of narratives can be opened up?
There’s also adding non-white protagonists, or at least passable as beyond a stereotype non-white supporting characters. I’m not going to push for gay bros yet, though. They exist — there is a Reddit thread — but everyone just got comfortable with Chris Colfer.
RC: Let’s not forget Kevin Hart, who, with Ride Along and The Wedding Ringer, is going a long way towards diversifying the bro comedy. If we venture towards more prominent female characters, though, does it still function as a “bro comedy”? Not to sound like a douche, but let’s remember what bro comedies are: movies about dudes, that dudes can go see with their dude-bros, and quote when they’re out drinking with their dude-bros. I wholeheartedly agree that women draw the short straw in these films, but, since bro comedies are so focused on bro-friendship, it’s probably best to not pretend there’s a prominent place for women in these stories. Just like there aren’t really strong male characters in a movie like Bridesmaids.
One of the reasons I Love You, Man is such a solid bro comedy is because, rather than circling around how his bros help him deal with some “crazy chick,” it focuses almost exclusively on Paul Rudd’s quest to find a bro, equating the situation to the struggles of finding a significant other. What that movie has is a sort of innocence, a heart. There’s no posturing, there’s only vulnerability. Finding a friend is every bit as hard as finding a mate. And I think it’s the search for a bro that’s more interesting to me, not the lived-in bro-ness that comes with having a bro.
Dan? Bro? Closing thoughts?
DC: No, I think you bros all covered it. In discussing the bro comedy, we’ve discovered that it’s just as complex as any other film genre — rife with stereotypes, films that subvert those stereotypes, multilayered definitions, etc. More importantly, the bro comedy has the ability to add more layers to a cinematic archetype that’s just as common as the cowboy or superhero, who are maybe bros in themselves? The original bros, perhaps? I don’t know, bro. Maybe all this bro talk is making me overthink the whole bro thing. I need a beer with my bros. Later, bros!